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How National Overhaul Transformed American Literature

A Review of Grant C. Knight’s The Strenuous Age in American Literature, 1900-1910

Grant C. Knight, a graduate of Albright College, dedicated the majority of his life studying American literature.  He became an English professor at the University of Kentucky in 1923 and remained with the English faculty for the rest of his life.  His most well-known works include his two volumes of a trilogy regarding American literature at the beginning of the twentieth century—The Critical Period in American Literature, 1890-1900 and The Strenuous Age in American Literature, 1900-1910.  He passed away while writing his third volume.

In The Strenuous Age in American Literature, 1900-1910, Professor Grant C. Knight carefully examines the first decade of the twentieth century.  The book is divided into five chapters, each acknowledging different aspects of American life that shaped American literature.  Knight also occasionally provides a more detailed examination of some significant works to further his argument.  Knight’s analysis is remarkably inclusive, analyzing how America, “stirred from hemispheric containment and stretched out strong arms to east and west” and how this new policy dramatically affected America’s domestic affairs and literature.1

Professor Knight begins his book by discussing how the United States experiences an overhaul at the turn of the twentieth century and how these changes influenced literary preferences.  For instance, imperialism was at high tide, and the United States was, “assuming a larger role in the feverish global politics of the era.”2  As the nation became an economic empire, the historical novel became popular because of its romantic tone and its personification of American economic dominance.  It gave Americans a moment to relish their nation’s accomplishments and benefits.  Knight also identifies some similar characteristics in the genre of the time, noting its gayety, innocence, and the common attributes and personalities of its protagonists and antagonists.  What Knight finds most significant of the historical novels of the time was how heroines were often regarded as idealized young ladies that were capricious and headstrong.  These characteristics refer to how women’s roles in society evolved due to the tumultuous and demanding lifestyle of the city.  Male heroes were mostly young gentlemen who, although not very scholarly, were highly adept in other practical skills such as swordsmanship, and villains were often depicted as daring, corrupt men desirous of the heroine.  Some critics denounced the historical novel because it turned a blind eye to current issues, fermented nostalgia throughout the American population, and forced writers to conform to public favoritism and bias.  However, most Americans enjoyed reading historical novels because of its dramatic plot and how it distracted them from their difficult and insecure life.  Furthermore, the early twentieth century was also dominated by the anti-trust movement and the rise of realists.

As trusts grew in such size and power that they began to influence almost every aspect of American life and politics, liberals began their campaign to raise awareness of unrighteous business practices.  Knight especially emphasizes how liberals utilized the press to their advantage to bring about their argument, starting with pocket books written by Eugene V. Debs and eventually resorting to full length novels written by the infamous Muckrackers.  Eventually, their efforts spawned a president dedicated to the welfare of the people rather than that of businesses.

Knight continues by discussing how Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency took the United States into the Progressive Era and inspired literature to personify life outside of the city.  President Roosevelt represented, “a man of daring action” and became a symbol of strong leadership.3  As a result, realists and liberals, confident in a president that supported their agenda, became even more active in their efforts to pass liberal reform.  Knight discusses how President Roosevelt strived to end “Americanismus,” the, “fever . . . to make so much money that one would not mind anything” by suing trusts for their disregard for law.4  He possessed no intention of, “allowing the authority of the government of the United States, or of a State, or of the presidency to be subverted by a financial oligarchy.”5  Consequently, Americans idolized Roosevelt, modeling themselves off of his vibrant personality and values.  Roosevelt hunted, rode horses, made countless speeches throughout the country, praised athletes and sportsmen, and worked to the conservation of natural sights, believing that the physical man be always in motion.  These principles spawned a new type of American and Americanism throughout the nation and inspired American literature of the time to move outdoors.  Roosevelt’s reputation as an outdoor enthusiast served as encouragement to nature and western writers, and their works were attractive to city dwellers who longed for the peaceful escape from the bustling city factories that they worked in.  It was not only President Roosevelt’s leadership and spirit but also the American people’s admiration of him that determined America’s literary theme.

The early twentieth century essentially was also a Literary Great Awakening and Intellectual Renaissance in the United States, and Knight proves this by analyzing Henry James and his Direct Impression strategy.  James, the most discussed American writer between 1900 and 1910, took an international angle of vision, questioning the rationality of the sentimental, romantic idealization of love.  This new point of view allowed James to equate his moral imperatives with his directives.  However, critics constantly complained how he wrote too loquaciously and how he sometimes simply demonstrated a general lack of adeptness in writing.  James was also unattractive to some readers because his characters and plots were not compatible to their real-life counterparts.  While real life was disordered and erratic, James’ world is organized, with every event planned ahead of time.  This lack of social accuracy degraded from his overall performance and popularity.  However, Knight points out that James was an effective writer because James was very deliberate in shaping his material accounts, giving the impression that life is, “eternal warfare between the creatures of light and the powers of darkness.”6  James was an expert in timing small and great climaxes that kept readers in anticipation.  Also, technological advances helped spur new styles of writing such as Yellow Journalism.  The naval arms race against Japan caused newspaper editors to coin the phrase “The Yellow Peril,” reiterating how Asians, specifically the Chinese and Japanese, were a major threat to American interests in the Pacific.  This form of journalism, along with “The Yellow Peril” phrase served as a frequent theme behind racism against Asian immigration, eventually leading to government action such as the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act.  New inventions, like theaters and movies, caused American literature to deteriorate in some ways.  As new forms of entertainment came into business, audiences turned their attention away from written works to experience the captivating films.  But literature did not decline entirely.  To raise awareness of urban living conditions, many authors turned to writing in political fiction.  One such novel is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which highlighted the unbearable and dangerous conditions of factory work and the lack of protection for workers.  This work brought the attention of President Roosevelt, who pushed for passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.  Technological breakthroughs and the rise of the Direct Impression had a powerful effect on the American people and their literary tastes.

Finally, Knight discusses how President William Taft’s presidency caused the Progressive Era and the literary trends behind it to lose momentum and establish fiction as the dominant literary genre in the U.S.  President Taft, being the successor of one of the most popular presidents in U.S. history, was considered non-dramatic, judicial, reluctant to change, and a weak contrast to President Roosevelt.  Naturally, despite Taft’s aggressive trust prosecution and strong sponsorship of Progressive legislation, overall enthusiasm toward liberal reform died down.  The Muckrackers achieved some concrete success due to President Roosevelt and Taft’s efforts, but the movement gradually collapsed as public interest slackened.  President Taft’s low profile in national and international politics brought about a, “brief period of indecision, of wary footwork and sparring between conservative and insurgent factions” in the late 1900s, coupled with a pause in the growth of the arts.7  It seemed as if equilibrium was established and that, “the status quo seemed in no danger.”8  With President Roosevelt’s and Taft’s success in stifling corrupt business and politics, Americans’ vigilance and participation slowly declined because most of their demands were met.  However, historical fiction remained largely unaffected by these events.  There was still a great demand for this genre because it, “provided a therapeutic relaxation of the will” from the many hardships of daily life in the factories.9  Knight, once again, highlights how American literature was greatly influenced by important figures’ agendas and the common man’s interests.

Knight’s purpose is to describe how American literature between 1900 and 1910 was determined by the evolution that the United States was experiencing at the time.  The beginning of the twentieth century was a transitional period for the nation.  It was inevitable that the, “money center of the world should move from Threadneedle Street to Wall Street.”10  The nation was, “deeply engaged in the Pacific and determined to maintain John Hay’s Open Door policy in China.”11  Amid these profound changes in policy, Knight analyzes how literature followed suit.  He highlights how while novelists provided historical romances and fiction to divert workers from their hectic and unpredictable lives, muckrackers and realists brought about the concept of social criticism for denouncing dishonest business practices and unbearable urban living conditions.  Knight aims to explain not only how American literature took a new form as the nation entered a new phase in its maturation but also how it is affected by the society that it represents.

Knight grew up with a strong passion for American literature, achieving his Masters degree in the Arts from Gettysburg College.  He joined the English faculty at the University of Kentucky in 1923 and even received an honorary doctorate in 1951 for his dedication in studying American literature.  Knight has written several other works regarding American literature such as James Lane Allen and the Genteel Tradition, which was praised by reviewers for its comprehensiveness.  Considering his previous successes in researching subject, there is no doubt that Knight is highly knowledgeable and passionate in his studies.  There is little evidence of any bias at all throughout his works, but Knight believed that American literature throughout the early twentieth century was, “as dull a state as it has ever been since the New England revival.”12  Knight also believed that critics have been, “neglectful in favor of other periods.”13  The early twentieth century was a pivotal, transitional phase for the nation and Knight had the sense of responsibility to educate the American people on that period.  In addition, when he wrote this book, the United States was reaping from the rewards of World War II and assuming its strong international leadership role.  American confidence surged due to their success in defeating the Axis Powers and recovering from the devastating Great Depression.  But the American people also felt great fear for Communist expansion, leading to new conflicts and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.  With this, Americans placed even less emphasis on studying American literature, more concerned with the possibility of a Communist takeover of the country.  This popular sentiment served as more motivation for Knight to take on the daunting task of dissecting the early twentieth century.

Reviewers from across the globe saw Knight’s work as an excellent, yet partial, account of just how literature was radically affected in the time period.  Knight was effective in describing how America’s evolution as a nation changed literary tastes and styles, but his book had a, “curious look of incompleteness, as though a play had started with act two and been unceremoniously stopped in the middle of act three.”14  In fact, The Strenuous Age in American Literature, 1900-1910 was meant to be a continuation of Knight’s analysis started in his earlier work, The Critical Period in American Literature, 1890-1900, and Knight passed away while working on his third and final volume.  However, both reviews recognized how Knight was able connect the, “intellectual, spiritual, and scientific orientations . . . in this period of rapid evolution” to the literary revolution of the early twentieth century.15  Knight is applauded for not only contributing to literary history but also to U.S. history.

This book is rich of information and quite interesting to read, and Knight remains highly thorough in his analysis from beginning to end.  Although this large amount of detail can become monotonous and occasionally difficult to read, one can truly understand Knight’s passion in his writing and research.  As mentioned earlier, The Strenuous Age in American Literature, 1900-1910 is a, “sequel to The Critical Period in American Literature, 1890-1900,” so it is best to read both together to gain an even more comprehensive examination of the time period.16  As a result, the book had an abrupt beginning and lacked a sense of conclusiveness.  Despite this drawback, Knight is still able to deliver a vast amount of knowledge about the turn of the century.  But what truly makes this book so helpful in understanding the confusing period is how Knight constantly connects American literary trends with their corresponding events.  Knight approached the subject as if, “to give literature position in the social panorama . . . [and] to integrate literature with the social history of the time.”17  With this, one can finally understand the relationship between social change and literature and how they influenced each other.

A strong connection between American literature and American history exists throughout The Strenuous Age in American Literature, 1900-1910.  It is this interplay that actually helps Knight prove the point of this book—that literature is determined by its society’s history and condition.  He puts extra emphasis over how romanticism declined as realism became more popular because of the Industrial Revolution.  The common worker faced almost no chance of upward mobility because of their low pay and inability to compete with already powerful monopolies.  As life became chaotic and spontaneous, American writers wrote novels that no longer represented conflicts between, “man and fate, or man and nature, but between man’s ethics and the morality of capitalism.”18  This is one of the many examples of how social changes influenced the literary demands of many Americans.  Knight not only writes about how American literature changed in the early twentieth century but also what forces like social change and historical events induced that change, providing readers with a wealth of information regarding not only American literature but also American history.

Overall, The Strenuous Age in American Literature, 1900-1910 truly is a very useful and interesting book, serving as a Rosetta stone for understanding the complex history of American literature.  Knight especially stresses how the Industrial Revolution caused writers to become, “diligent in showing how greed and the craving for success undermined the honor of professional men,” effectively fermenting a new style of writing never seen before.19  Through his work, Knight is able to link this complicated subject with American history, proving how both influence each other and the United States.

1: Knight, Grant C. The Strenuous Age in American Literature, 1900-1910. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 1954.  6.
2: Knight, Grant C.  4.
3:  Knight, Grant C.  50.
4:  Knight, Grant C.  55.
5:  Knight, Grant C.  54.
6:  Knight, Grant C.  116.
7:  Knight, Grant C.  211.
8:  Knight, Grant C.  212.
9:  Knight, Grant C.  218.
10: Knight, Grant C.  5.
11: Knight, Grant C.  6.
12: Knight, Grant C.  vi.
13: Knight, Grant C.  v.
14: Hoffman, Frederick J. "American Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1." JSTOR. Duke University Press, Mar. 1955. Web.  27 May 2012. <>.  132.
15: Breton, M. Le. Etudes Anglaises. Paris: Didier Erudition, 2010. Print.  184.
16:  Knight, Grant C.  viii.
17:  Knight, Grant C.  viii.
18:  Knight, Grant C.  220.
19: Knight, Grant C.  225.